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Foundation skills

The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of foundation skills

I never imagined that one day I would combine Star Wars with my work in foundation skills … but, to my excitement, today is the day. And what better way to start off than with a quote from the great Obi-Wan Kenobi as he first describes the force to Luke Skywalker, saying …

“It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

So where’s the connection? I’m just going to change a few words. How about this?

“Foundation skills are like an energy field created by all humans. They surround us and penetrate us; they bind humanity together.”

Yes, foundation skills are akin to the force. A much better definition than the list of 15 skills I wrote in my previous post, wouldn’t you say?

I think the important point here is that foundation skills are more than just skills we apply in order to achieve something. They, in fact, permeate all aspects of our lives and enable people to exist, to work, to laugh and to cry … together. When you start looking at them more closely, you learn that we are not just dependent on our own foundation skills but interdependent on the skills of each other.

The purpose of this post (apart from creating a chance to write about Star Wars) is to look at:

  • the importance of foundation skills for individuals, organisations, society and whole countries;
  • the importance of their continual development; and
  • why we should all care, not just about our own skills, but about the skills of others.

(And please excuse the seriousness of the writing, with serious stuff included like quotes from academics and references.)

But first, just for fun, here are a few more quotes from Star Wars about foundation skills … I mean … the force.

For my ally is [foundation skills], and a powerful ally it is.” – Yoda

The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of [foundation skills].” – Darth Vader

My mentor taught me everything about [foundation skills] … even the nature of the dark side.” – Palpatine

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For individuals

The effects on individuals in not only developing a solid basis of foundation skills, but also in transferring them to varying contexts and in continuously advancing their abilities are substantial. Perkins1, in her report for the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) titled Adult literacy and numeracy: Research and future strategy, stated that a correlation exists between low levels of literacy and numeracy and social isolation, unemployment, a lack of qualifications, low wages and poor health.

Looking at employment, the findings reported by the Productivity Commission2 show that literacy and numeracy skills are associated with better employment and wages. Notably, an increase in literacy and numeracy skills from level 1 to level 3 (on the scale used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for their 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALLS) survey) would increase the likelihood of employment for women by about 15 per cent and around 5 per cent for men, as well as increase hourly wages for women by approximately 25 per cent and 30 per cent for men.

In a person’s relationship with society, the OECD3 identified in its reporting on the first round of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey that higher levels of proficiency in accessing and interpreting text-based information sources, such as newspapers and websites, may be linked to an increased understanding of the operations of societal institutions and of the beliefs, motivations and behaviour of others. It also identified that people’s literacy proficiency has a positive correlation with their trust in others, their sense of influence on political processes, participation in community activities and their ability to self-asses their health status.

For organisations

Issues related to employee foundation skills include inadequate completion of workplace documents and reports, time-wasting, materials wastage, recruitment difficulties, financial miscalculations, ineffective work teams, staff unable or unwilling to take on new work, non-compliance and staff lack of confidence4.

Yet, when language literacy and numeracy development opportunities have been provided to staff by employers, the resulting benefits were increased efficiency and productivity, increased ability to adapt to changes in technology, greater capability for staff retention and progression, improved health and safety compliance and increased teamwork and confidence5.

For society

Inequality of skills is linked with inequality of incomes, so how these skills are distributed in society significantly affects the distribution of economic outcomes within that society3. This difference, as noted by the OECD, can influence trust and cohesion among socially unequal and geographically different societies, separated and sorted by the opportunities and outcomes related to key skills.

Looking more deeply into the health consequences, Hartley and Horne6 noted that there are links between lower literacy and an increased risk of hospitalisation and higher rates of depression, concluding that health literacy is thus “a social as well as an economic issue, a matter for communities as well as for governments and educational policy-makers” (p.9). 

For countries

At the national level, the OECD3 stated that inadequate skills slow the adoption of more efficient technologies and approaches to work, reducing GDP growth at the macro-economic level. Korea’s development was used as an example, explaining that its high-tech, export-led economy was facilitated by its focus on education and training, which increased productivity and enhanced economic growth. In broader terms, the OECD stated that without education and skills development, countries with lower levels of skills jeopardise competitiveness as economies of the world evolve.

The Australian Industry Group4 (AIG) recognises this fact, stating that, “The Australian economy needs to lift productivity, and we cannot do this without increasingly higher levels of the workforce foundation skills as an urgent national priority” (p.3).

Perkins1 summarised these wide-ranging points by stating, “Literacy and numeracy are inextricably interwoven through all parts of our lives. They are directly or indirectly linked to the physical, social and economic wellbeing of individuals, to workplace safety and productivity, to community interaction and capacity, and ultimately to a country’s economic and social wellbeing” (p.6). 

Continual learning

Whilst all of this perspective on the value of foundation skills portrays wide implications of skills development, a deeper picture needs to addressed. The Community Skills and Health Industry Skills Council stated that “Foundation skills are the underpinning communication skills required for participation in the workplace, the community and in adult education and training” (p.6), yet this word ‘underpinning’ can create the illusion that once a particular skill has been learnt, an individual is then able to function in the workplace or society to an adequate standard and further development is not required.

In fact, almost everything we do incorporates one or more of the five core skills of the ACSF (learning, reading, writing, oral communication and numeracy), irrespective of the complexity of the task or action. The implication of this is that as work roles, workplaces and societies change, the underlying foundation skills associated with new roles, environments and conditions need to be updated.

Foundation skills, therefore, cannot be seen as abilities to learn once, rather a set of skills that regularly need to be revisited and advanced. To quote Perkins1 once more, literacy and numeracy are not “fixed sets of transferable skills,” rather “literacy and numeracy requirements change as a person moves from one context to another, and that literacy and numeracy skills development is a lifelong process” (p.11). 

The OECD3 highlights these changing circumstances by stating, “As the demand for skills continues to shift towards more sophisticated tasks, as jobs increasingly involve analysing and communicating information, and as technology pervades all aspects of life, those individuals with poor literacy and numeracy skills are more likely to find themselves at risk” (p.27).

Alert to this fact that foundation skills need continuous attention in order to keep up with an evolving society, the AIG4 wrote at the beginning of the executive summary of Getting it Right: Foundation Skills for the Workforce, “Australian workplaces are dynamic and constantly changing. The workforce needs to respond to increasing skills requirements brought about by new technologies, new work processes and increased compliance and quality assurance measures. Progressively higher levels of language, literacy and numeracy are required to support this” (p.3). 

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So, to end with one final Star Wars reference, the next time you’re fighting a galactic empire or just when you’re going down to the shop for a loaf of bread … may foundation skills be with you.

References

1 Perkins, K. (2009). Adult literacy and numeracy: Research and future strategy. Retrieved from https://www.ncver.edu.au/__data/assets/file/0018/9162/adult-literacy-and-numeracy-2162.pdf 

2 Shomos, A. (2010). Linked Between Literacy and Numeravcy and Labour Market Outcomes. Retrieved from https://www.pc.gov.au/research/supporting/literacy-numeracy-labour-outcomes/literacy-numeracy-labour-outcomes.pdf 

3 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2013). OECD Skills Outlook 2013. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/Skills%20volume%201%20(eng)–full%20v12–eBook%20(04%2011%202013).pdf 

4 Australian Industry Group. (2013). Getting it Right: Foundation Skills for the Workforce. Retrieved from https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A59095 

5 Standing Council on Tertiary Education, Skills & Employment. (2012). NATIONAL FOUNDATION SKILLS STRATEGY FOR ADULTS. Retrieved from https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/national-foundation-skills-strategy-for-adults_0.pdf 

6 Harley, R. & Horne, J. (2006). Social and economic benefits of improved adult literacy: Towards a better understanding. Retrieved from https://www.ncver.edu.au/__data/assets/file/0020/4808/nr4l06.pdf 

7 Community Skills and Health Industry Skills Council. (2015). Foundation Skills Guide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Qualifications. Retrieved from https://vetnet.education.gov.au/Public%20Documents/HLT_Foundation_Skills_Guide.pdf